We are pleased to kick off the next of our research projects, which we call “Network Security in the Age of Any Computing.” It’s about how reducing attack surface, now that those wacky users expect to connect to critical resources from any device, at any time, from anywhere in the world. Thus ‘any’ computing.

Remember, in order to see our blog series (and the rest of our content) you’ll need to check out our Heavy feed. You can also subscribe to the Heavy feed via RSS.


Everyone loves their iDevices and Androids. The computing power that millions now carry in their pockets would have required raised flooring and an large room full of big iron just 25 years ago. But that’s not the only impact we see from this wave of consumerization. Whatever control we (IT) thought we had over the environment is gone. End users pick their devices and demand access to critical information within the enterprise.

And that’s not all. We also have demands for unfettered access from anywhere in the world at any time during the day. And though smart phones are the most visible devices, there are more. We have the ongoing tablet computing invasion (iPad for the win!); and a new generation of workers who either idolize Steve Jobs and will be using a Mac whether you like it or not, or are technically savvy and prefer Linux. Better yet, you aren’t in a position to dictate much of anything moving forward. It’s a great time to be a security professional, right?

Sure, we could hearken back to the good old days. You know – the days of the Blackberry, when we had some semblance of control. All mobile access happened through your BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES). You could wipe the devices remotely and manage policy and access. Even better, you owned the devices so you could dictate what happened on them.

Those days are over. Deal with it.

The Risks of Any Computing

We call this concept any computing. You are required to provide access to critical and sensitive information on any device, from anywhere, at any time. Right – it’s scary as hell.

Let’s take a step back and quickly examine the risks. If you want more detail, check out our white paper on Mobile Device Security (PDF):

  • Lost Devices: Some numbnuts you work with manage to lose laptops, so imagine what they’ll do with these much smaller and more portable devices. They will lose them, with data on them. And be wary of device sales – folks will often use their own the devices, copy your sensitive data to them, and eventually sell them. A few of these people will think to wipe their devices first, but you cannot rely on their memory or sense of responsibility.
  • Wireless Shenanigans: All of these any computing devices include WiFi radios, which means folks can connect to any network. And they do. So we need to worry about what they are connecting to, who is listening (man in the middle), and otherwise messing with network connectivity. And rogue access points aren’t only in airport clubs and coffee shops. Odds NetStumbler can find some ‘unauthorized’ networks in your own shop. Plenty of folks use 3G cards to get a direct pipe to the Internet – bypassing your egress controls, and if they’re generous they might provide an unrestricted hotspot for their neighbors. Did I hear you to say ubiquitous connectivity is a good thing?
  • Malware: Really? To be clear, malware isn’t much of an issue on smart phones now. But you can’t assume it never will be, can you? More importantly, consumer laptops may not be protected against today’s attacks and malware. Even better, many folks have jailbroken their devices to load that new shiny application – not noticing that in the process they disabled many of their device’s built-in security features in the process. Awesome.
  • Configuration: Though not necessarily a security issue, you need to consider that many of these devices are not configured correctly. They will load applications they don’t need and turn off key security controls, then connect to your customer database. So any computing creates clear and significant management issues as well. If not handled correctly, these will create vastly more attack surface.

“Network Security in the Age of Any Computing” will take a look at these issue from a network-centric perspective. Why? You don’t control the devices, so you need to look at what types of environments/controls can provide some control at a layer you do control – the network. We’ll examine a few network architectures to deal with these devices. We will also looking at some network security technologies that can help protect critical information assets.

Business Justification

Finally, let’s just deal with the third wheel of any security initiative: business justification. Ultimately you need to make the case to management that additional security technologies are worthwhile. Of course, you could default to the age-old justification of fear – wearing them down with all the bad things that could happen. But with any computing it doesn’t need to be that complicated.

  1. List top line impact: First we need to pay attention to the top line, because that’s what the bean counters and senior execs are most interested in. So map out what new business processes can happen with support for these devices, and get agreement that the top line impact of these new process is bigger than a breadbox. It will be hard (if not impossible) to estimate true revenue impact, so the goal is to get acknowledgement that positive business impact is real.
  2. New attack vectors: Next have a very unemotional discussion about all the new ways to compromise your critical information via these new processes. Again, you don’t need to throw FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) bombs, because you have reality on your side. Any computing does make it harder to protect information.
  3. Close (or not): Basically you are in a position to now close the loop and get funding – not by selling Armageddon, but instead providing a simple trade-off. The organization needs to support any computing for lots of business reasons. That introduces new attack vectors, putting critical data at risk. It will cost $X to more adequately protect the information. Yes, you could talk about downtime and customer service and brand. But ultimately, we believe that business justification is about objectively presenting both sides of the story and allowing the business folks to make a business decision.

Next we will dig into some of the network security architectures that can be used to protect this any computing environment.